Taijuan Walker was sailing along with a one-hit shutout Wednesday afternoon when Seattle Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon opted for a pinch hitter in the seventh inning.
The Mariners had a one-run lead at time, and McClendon was gambling they could get to San Diego starter James Shields, who had pushed past 100 pitches.
The strategy paid off.
The Mariners drew two walks from a tiring Shields and got an RBI single from Robinson Cano against reliever Frank Garces in what turned into a 7-0 romp over the Padres at Petco Park.
Don’t be deceived. It was a lot closer until the end. Nelson Cruz’s 20th homer of the season capped a four-run ninth inning after a mind-boggling throwing error by Padres shortstop Alexi Amarista.
But know this: Walker (7-6) was dominant again in striking out seven and walking none. He is 6-1 with a 1.68 ERA over his last seven starts with 51 strikeouts and three walks. He has not walked a batter in his last four starts.
So, obvious question: Why pull him after just 76 pitches in a 1-0 lead with two outs and a runner on second?
“There were a number of factors that went into pulling him,” McClendon said. “No. 1, this is a young pitcher who has gone deep into a lot of ballgames. At some point, we have to protect his innings. We have to protect him. He may not like it, but 12 years from now when he’s still pitching in this league and flourishing, he’ll thank me. He’ll say, ‘The old man knew what he was doing.’ That’s the No. 1 factor.
“No. 2, our bullpen is rested and ready to go. We just felt if we had a chance to pick up another run, it would be big for us in this game.”
Say this: It worked.
Brad Miller was at second base after a walk and a steal when McClendon opted for Dustin Ackley to bat for Walker.
“I was ready,” Ackley said. “But with the way Walker was throwing, you really don’t know what’s going to happen. We don’t play (under) National League (rules) enough to know how it all works.”
Walker admitted he was initially miffed.
“Of course, I wanted to stay in there,” he said. “And I felt I had just gotten into a groove the last couple of innings. It’s baseball. We had an opportunity to score, and we took full advantage of it.”
Ackley drew a four-pitch walk from a Shields, who then issued another four-pitch walk to Logan Morrison that loaded the bases. That got the game to Cano, whose leadoff homer in the sixth had opened the scoring.
The Padres called on Garcas, and Cano drove an RBI single up the middle. Even though Ackley was thrown out at the plate, the Mariners had a 2-0 lead for their bullpen.
Vidal Nuno got the first out in the seventh before McClendon called on Mark Lowe, who worked around Yangervis Solarte’s two-out double. Fernando Rodney and Tom Wilhelmsen closed out the victory.
The Mariners blew the game open in the closing innings. They made it 3-0 on Austin Jackson’s sacrifice fly in the eighth before scoring four runs in the ninth inning.
Cano capped his 4-for-5 day with an RBI double before Cruz, on his 35th birthday, got his 20th homer on a two-run shot that barely cleared the left-field wall.
“I was surprised when it went out,” he said. “I thought it was a pop-up. It had a lot of backspin, I guess.”
Cano’s performance was particularly encouraging for what it might — just might — mean. He finished with his first four-hit game in nearly a year: July 18, 2014; the first game last season after the All-Star break.
“It’s never too late,” he said. “Hopefully, it can continue from now on. Keep swinging the same way. It’s not about me getting hot or swinging the bat well. It’s about winning. We’ve got to get going.”
This was a start, anyway, and it helped the Mariners halt two torturous trends: They had lost nine straight series finales, and they had won only one of their last 11 day games.
“Taijuan pitched a great game,” Cano said. “It’s too bad that it’s the National League, and you have to pinch hit. But the bullpen did a great job.”
It was all part of the plan, McClendon insisted. Walker, still just 22, had averaged 98 pitches and nearly seven innings over his seven previous starts.
“Listen, he probably didn’t deserve to come out of the game,” McClendon admitted. “You have to think about his last couple of outings. You have to be conscious of that. This is something I thought of before the game started.
“It wasn’t a knee-jerk reaction.”